Album Review by Adam Foster
It takes several listens to get to grips with Matthew Ryan’s UK debut. Indeed, it takes two or three listens to begin to distinguish one track from another. The variety of arrangement which made Jeff Klein’s EVERYBODY LOVES A WINNER so interesting is lacking here. If this sounds irrelevant, it is not: Matthew Ryan produced Klein’s album with great intelligence and imagination.
However, he clearly feels that on this self-produced album, the songs must be allowed to do their own talking. And to some degree he succeeds. These are guitar and cello-based ballads filled with sadness, anger, and a little pity. Delivered in a voice which hovers somewhere between middle period Tom Waits and late period Dylan, this is not an album to cheer you up.
Nonetheless, at its best, the songs really do stand up and demand to be counted. HAPPY HOUR, for example, is as close to melancholy Waits as you could get without breaching copyright, yet remains a thrillingly glum song to hear in its own right. And CHICKERING ANGEL lyrically echoes Paul Simon’s AMERICA (“I could feel my heart beat when Amy lit a cigarette / And put her hand on my knee / And I said, angel / I’m sad and I don’t know why”) before turning into a pathetic tale of a tragic Bonnie & Clyde misadventure.
And this is where Ryan’s attraction might lie. Just when you think you know where he’s going, he confounds your expectations. Doubtless, there is a good deal of movie-witnessed cliché here, but there is also enough telling insight (“Tell a joke, light a smoke, just let the day go for now,” for example, from HAPPY HOUR) to make you stop and want to listen again. Like some of the very best American songwriters, he uses media-filtered experience as a reference point to describe his own universe: and it is a challenging place.
But it is not all slow stuff. There is a cover of the Clash’s SOMEONE GOT MURDERED (the Clash are something of a touchstone amongst One Little Indian’s band of singer-songwriters). And there is the radio friendly NIGHT WATCHMAN – an upbeat tale about a 13 year old boy who witnesses the death of his brother and the brutalisation of his mother, before stabbing his father to death (“I remember summer crickets, I stabbed him 30 times / My name is Hank Low: I was 13 years old / I was the night watchman.” Thank you and goodnight.)
Ultimately, the whole thing is a grower. You keep going back for just one more listen, and each play reveals something new in the landscape he paints. The decision not to detract from the songs with different arrangements may be a brave one (and perhaps commercial suicide), but for the patient listener it will pay off in spades.